The following review was written by Brandon Towns, a Chicago high school student, as part of Columbia College Chicago's Columbia Links journalism program for high school students. RogerEbert.com has partnered with the Chicago Urban League and Columbia Links to mentor these students and to give them a platform for their writing. Read more about the program here.
Directed by Marquis Daisy
“Smile” is a hard watch. This emotional documentary throws you into the lives of the Newtons, a Chicago family living in the inner city as they reflect on a tragic moment in their family’s history. The film’s uncompromising story will bring tears to your eyes and make you want to call your siblings afterwards. A strong sense of family is present throughout this filmic journey as we travel into the Newton’s world.
In the beginning of “Smile,” we’re introduced into this family as they go through their daily lives on the violent streets of Chicago’s South Side, often referred to as “Chiraq.” Director Marquis Daisy widens our gaze as he explores beyond the Newton family into the community. The environment and condition of the neighborhood become evident during each interview with its residents. With great imagery, the audience can envision the struggling livelihood in the community as its residents are engulfed by violence. The image of gunshot wounds overlaid with voiceovers from interviews such as Mary Whitehorn, who was an innocent bystander shot while going to the grocery store, or Laniel Richardson, who compares Chicago to Al-Qaeda. Director Daisy transitions between the family and community effortlessly through seamless editing.
However, this film isn’t without its flaws. The voiceover feels out of place and takes away from the tone of the film. There are several frames repeated as well as a few back focusing issues. Audio was also an issue for a few moments of this film, although there is brilliance in the editing, once again proving Daisy’s cleverness.
Brief black breaks create an ease from the tension or a safe haven. These breaks also become a transition between emotions as we watch this family break down in front of us. The shift back and forth builds a sense of unease. This contributes to the story because the viewer becomes entangled in the lives of the Newtons, as well as those in the community. You are no longer the distanced observer, watching this film about strangers. You become a participant, a family member.
This film is powerful because you experience the growth of the Newtons. You laugh with them through the good times and cry with them during the bad times. Daisy uses close-up of old family Polaroid pictures to represent the passage of time and to further develop the Newtons. This small visual aid provides a greater emotional response when the plot unfolds and we slowly discover their loss.
“Smile” is a thought-provoking documentary with a strong message about family strength and endurance. This film is timeless.